With Trump’s Phase 1 trade deal with China now complete after a lengthy signing ceremony on Wednesday cheered on by Wall Street luminaries such as Blackstone cofounder Stephen Schwarzman, hedge funders Ken Griffin and Nelson Peltz, and Mary Callahan Erdoes of JPMorgan, investors now have a new reason to try and play growth in the country. Record earnings released by investment bank Morgan Stanley the morning after trade negotiations wrapped up reveal the profits that can be made by smartly investing in the world’s second-largest economy.
Morgan Stanley’s fourth-quarter earnings revealed strength across the firm. Revenues surged 27%, propelled by growth across important divisions such as trading, underwriting and wealth management. Overall, Morgan Stanley posted $10.8 billion in revenues for the quarter and $2.2 billion in profits, and for the full year, the investment bank generated a record $41.4 billion in revenue and a $9 billion profit, underscoring the success CEO James Gorman has had in managing its vaunted investment bank, building up its wealth management operations and refitting its trading desks to boost profits.
One line item in the results, however, uncovered a new story for Wall Street watchers to follow. Morgan Stanley’s investment management division booked an almost unprecedented investment windfall in Asia, which reflects the potential China and the rest of the region holds to both the firm and its Wall Street peers in banking and private equity.
In 2013, Morgan Stanley’s Asian private equity division helped take Chinese baby-milk producer Feihe International private, working with the company’s controlling family, led by CEO Leng Youbin. The company, founded in 1962, had listed American Depositary receipt shares on the New York Stock Exchange in 2008. After generally languishing in the wake of the listing, shareholders like Youbin and his family trusts looked to privatize the business, working Morgan Stanley’s Asian private equity arm on a $147 million deal to buy out the public shares listed on the NYSE. Morgan Stanley contributed $28.1 million of equity on behalf of its limited partners, Feihe’s CEO ponied up a further $8 million, and the consortium raised $50 million in debt financing from Wing Lung Bank Limited and Cathay United Bank to get the deal done.
This past fall, they re-listed Feihe, now the leading baby-milk seller in China, by selling 893 million shares in Hong Kong and raising about $900 million to pay down debt and make acquisitions. Since the listing, China Feihe’s shares have skyrocketed from about HK$7.5 to KK$10.98, per Sentieo data, as investors gained interest in its 15% market baby formula share and revenues and profits of $1.5 billion and $317 million, respectively.
For the participants, the 2013 deal has turned into one of the big windfalls of this era. The Leng family’s shares are now worth $5.2 billion according to Forbes calculations and Morgan Stanley’s shares are worth some $2.3 billion. When Morgan Stanley released full-year earnings, the deal even moved the needle for the 60,000 worker investment bank.
The firm’s investment management division saw revenues more than double to $1.4 billion, led by $670 million in quarterly investment revenue versus $82 million in the year prior. Of the windfall, Morgan Stanley said its investment revenues “increased from a year ago on accrued carried interest related to an underlying investment’s initial public offering, subject to sales restrictions, within an Asia private equity fund managed on behalf of clients.” The carry and gains appear have boosted the firm’s overall earnings by at least 15% for the quarter. Typically half of private equity investment fee revenue will go back to employees in the form of earned carried interest.
On a conference call with analysts, CFO Jonathan Pruzan elaborated about China Feihe, “The company has been quite successful and grown quite nicely. … To give you some sort of context around the round numbers, the investment that we made was less than $50 million, and the current investment value is approximately $2 billion.” (Morgan Stanley declined to comment further.)
China is the preeminent driver of wealth in the world. When Forbes released its 2019 list of China’s wealthiest people, reporters uncovered 60 new billionaires in the country, many of whom are building businesses domestically that may one day resemble companies like Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, Pfizer and Nike. Wall Street has to pay attention, especially with domestic markets richly valued after a decade-long bull run.
For years, dealmakers like Blackstone’s Schwarzman, JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon and Blackrock’s Larry Fink have been studying ways to build their presence in the region and either bank, partner or invest on behalf of the country’s growing business elite. While groundwork is mostly still just being laid, deals like Morgan Stanley’s recent coup underscore the potential remaining in China.
The Phase 1 trade deal signed on Wednesday signaled China’s intention to continue opening its financial system to foreign banks and investors. Vice premier Liu He, carrying a note from premier Xi Jinping, said at the Phase 1 signing China is transitioning from a high-growth economy to one more focused on quality increases. Presumably, that pertains to consumption, financial products and markets, and the capitalization of corporation. Some new developments reached in the deal appeared to make headway for U.S. firms excited about this potential.
The deal further opened Chinese markets to U.S. credit rating agencies, distressed debt investors and foreign financial firms seeking to fully own and manage subsidiaries in the region. Bankers have long wanted to own subsidiaries in the region and mostly unwound joint ventures that helped build China’s state-owned banking giants like ICBC.
In fact, a good way to gauge whether the Phase 1 trade agreement did in fact make substantial inroads, will be to watch how the largest U.S. financial firms respond. New action from the likes of JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon and Blackstone’s Schwarzman would signal the effectiveness of Wednesday’s deal.
I’m a staff writer at Forbes, where I cover finance and investing. My beat includes hedge funds, private equity, fintech, mutual funds, M&A and banks. I’m a graduate of Middlebury College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and I’ve worked at TheStreet and Businessweek. Before becoming a financial scribe, I was a part of the fateful 2008 analyst class at Lehman Brothers. Email thoughts and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter at @antoinegara